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The Mentors Steven Bochco Can't Thank Enough

March 12, 1995|RICK DU BROW | TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

Auto mechanic or Hollywood producer, it always helps to have someone good show you the ropes. Ask Steven Bochco. As co-creator of "NYPD Blue," "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," he's a TV icon. But there were times, he says, when he just didn't think he was good enough for the job.

Three people, he says, helped make the difference in his earlier professional life--producer William Sackheim, former MTM and NBC boss Grant Tinker, and Bochco's father, a violinist. If there is a signature to his work methods, Bochco says, it is traceable to them.

Sackheim, producer of such quality dramas as "The Law," "Delvecchio" and "The Neon Ceiling," will be honored Thursday at the annual Los Angeles festival of the New York-based Museum of Television & Radio.

"Billy Sackheim taught me more about story than anybody," says Bochco. "Grant taught me more about running a company and creating an environment. And my dad was the most honest and ethical person I ever met."

"Billy was a large cheese at Universal," says Bochco. Sackheim and Bochco were paired there on "Delvecchio," a 1976 series starring Judd Hirsch. Sackheim was executive producer; Bochco, producer.

"I was very nervous," says Bochco, "because Bill was exacting. We got the first script, and I took it home. When I finished, I said, 'Thank god, this is really good.'

"I went to work the next morning, and my phone was ringing off the hook. It was Billy. He said, 'What did you think of the script?' I said I thought it was pretty good. He said, 'It stinks.' I could feel the color draining out of my face. He said, 'Come over to my office.'

"He spent three hours telling me why it stank and how to fix it, and he was absolutely right. What devastated me wasn't that he was right and I was wrong, but that I didn't see it. I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do this work.' "

When Bochco left Universal for MTM, he fell back on his old mentor again. Bochco was producing "Paris," a police show starring James Earl Jones, and "nothing was jelling. ... I called Billy. He met me for dinner, and I spent 45 minutes moaning and asking his help.

"At the end, he said, 'Work harder.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'If you want to do this job, you have to work harder.' The next show I did was 'Hill Street Blues,' and I worked harder."

As for Tinker, Bochco recalls that when he joined MTM, he asked his new boss, " 'Do you have any thoughts about what you'd like me to be working on?' He said, 'No. We asked you to come to MTM to work on what you want to do.'

"This was a guy who created an environment in which writers were genuinely free to create and produce their work."

Bochco did, however, seek Tinker's advice about "Paris" when there was "a fundamental disagreement" between the young producer and Jones. "James Earl and I are still friends," says Bochco, "but this was legitimate disagreement. ... So I convened a meeting with Grant.

"He listened, then said, 'I think this work is too hard to do if we're not having fun. No show is worth being miserable about. If you're not having fun, I'll pick up the phone right now and bail us out of the rest of this season's commitment.'

"We continued the show until the end of its run," Bochco adds. "We got canceled after 13 episodes. Grant's point was that you can't legislate creative differences. You have to find your way with good will, and if you can't, then what the hell, let's not do it, life's too short."

Good advice in a tough town. And probably a mystery to Hollywood's sharks.

The Museum of Television and Radio's "A Tribute to William Sackheim" is Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Directors Guild of Aemrica, 7920 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For ticket information, call 1-800-881-3070.

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